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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame looks ahead this week to 2019, while still readying for Clemson

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Notre Dame’s focus will not stray much from Clemson, but if there is any week this month where some attention is paid elsewhere, it is this one. The 72-hour early signing period begins Wednesday morning, meaning questions about 2019 and future roster construction are only natural.

As for the No. 3 Irish, they took to the field Saturday for a 60-play scrimmage, per head coach Brian Kelly, beginning a transition from “a lot of technique work” into Tigers-specific thoughts.

Even in that pseudo-spring practice, Kelly saw a difference from Jafar Armstrong compared to how the sophomore running back looked throughout the season’s second half. With senior Dexter Williams sidelined through the first four weeks of the year, Armstrong racked up 332 total yards with five touchdowns. Then a knee infection shut him down for three games and a sprained ankle suffered in his first game back limited his effectiveness in November.

Armstrong totaled 80 yards in the last four games, including none through the air.

“Every time it seemed that we turned a corner, something would put him back,” Kelly said Saturday. “I think this is the first time that we’ve seen him …  He’ll get a ton of work today, and we think he’s back to where he was earlier in the season.”

Notre Dame hopes so, because with or without Armstrong, offensive coordinator Chip Long is going to run the ball. Despite Clemson having the country’s best run defense, one fronted by three defensive linemen earning about every accolade and praise possible, Long will undoubtedly remain committed to the ground game.

“It starts with physicality over finesse,” Kelly said of Long’s play calling. “Essentially, he knows that we have to start with a tight end on the field, somebody that can help us in the run game, and our offense will start with the run game.

“Everything can be built off of that. … And then [Long] is really good at being patient and probing, and he will stick to what his plan is.”

The Irish averaged 38.3 genuine rush attempts per game this season, only twice falling below 30 (28 at Virginia Tech; 26 at USC). Clemson opponents, meanwhile, averaged 35.2 genuine rush attempts per game, with a full half dozen failing to break 30, low-lighted by Syracuse’s 25 attempts and South Carolina’s 22. Remove two triple-option opponents from the mix and that season-long average falls to 33.5.

Tigers foes gave up running the ball because Clemson shut that part of the game down. Long will not give in as quickly.

Now then, to some forward-looking questions …

Who is leaving for the NFL, another team, etc.? — nmmargie

Being in the Playoff makes this a tougher question to answer at this point than it usually is. There simply is no discussion of it publicly and only a touch of it behind closed doors. No one is going to express an intention to leave before the postseason run ends. Simple as that. Well, except senior tight end Alizé Mack. He has already committed to playing in the Senior Bowl, but that was as much about securing that slot as anything else.

Of the rest with eligibility remaining, five seem to have NFL decisions to ponder: junior defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, junior cornerback Julian Love, junior receiver Chase Claypool and senior receiver Miles Boykin.

How Notre Dame fares in two weeks could dictate some of those decisions. Further speculation requires a reach in logic.

As for those likely to transfer, this space does not comment on that in any form of a guessing game. Looking at an updated depth chart, though, the Irish will have 92 players expected for August if all 21 current commitments sign this week. Players are going to leave. (That 92 includes all five of those wondering about the NFL, so that can start the necessary trimming. It does not include senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush; it is that certain he transfers elsewhere as a graduate student.)

Notre Dame will not need 13 receivers, 14 linebackers or 16 defensive backs. Expect some of the attrition to come from those overloaded positions, with perhaps a player on each line also heading out.

The return of defensive tackle Jerry Tillery last offseason keyed much of Notre Dame’s unbeaten run. In a similar way, end Khalid Kareem (pictured) could hold the keys to next year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With next year including games at Georgia and at Michigan, what is the team going to look like? I’m not too worried about the offense — quite a few skill players and OL returning to help make the transition. But the defense loses the middle — Bonner, Tillery, Tranquill, Coney for sure, maybe Love as well. How do you think we will fare with an Irish reload? — Gary H.

This is tough to answer until those NFL decisions are made. Primarily, if both Kareem and Okwara return, the defense should be just fine. If Love joins them, it will have the makings of another dominant unit.

Kareem, specifically, gives the Irish front some flexibility. He can play inside on most downs, putting Okwara and junior Daelin Hayes at the ends. The litany of capable, but young, defensive tackles can rotate through alongside and in place of Kareem. That theoretical line would serve just fine and make up for some immediate inexperience at linebacker.

Lose Kareem and/or Okwara and this becomes more of a concern. Check back Jan. 15.

Speaking of linebacker, though, expect Asmar Bilal to move inside for his final season, offering some physicality and experience there while Shayne Simon gets his turn at rover.

Assuming Shaun Crawford comes back healthy and ready to play next year, who gets the short stick of playing time in the secondary? Assuming Julian Love comes back, you return everybody except Coleman. Will we not see Bracy or Griffith as much, both really talented guys? What about Derrik Allen, who came in as a pretty high recruit from Georgia? Seems like Kelly also likes Paul Moala. Obviously a good problem to have, but an interesting talking point, nonetheless. — Thomas W.

Well, it may be wishful thinking to assume Love comes back. That is not to say he won’t, but it is to say it seems more likely he heads to the NFL.

It is also wishful thinking to assume Crawford returns healthy. Yes, barring a setback he will be cleared during the summer. But this ACL tear was Crawford’s third major injury. His quickness has diminished with each, and that is unlikely to be restored by August. Crawford should be in a position to contribute, but that may need to be in even more of a part-time role than before. Perhaps he splits nickel back reps with current freshman Houston Griffith and current freshman TaRiq Bracy fills in where Love leaves off.

As for Allen, there does not need to be a rush to get a player on the field just because they arrive highly-touted. As often as not, not doing so speaks positively of those already around (current juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman) more than it does negatively of the young presumed star. Elliott will be out of eligibility after 2019, and Gilman transferred to Notre Dame specifically because he wants to play in the NFL; he may be gone, as well. There is no need for Allen to be impatient, a route to playing time is clear.

And when Kelly is high on Moala, that is more about special teams. Don’t expect too much from him in the secondary next season, if anything.

Playing time exists for those that need it and deserve it. Even if Love returns, this year has shown how quickly a Bracy can be needed. One injury, one underperforming starter, and in he goes.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame avoids silliness of postseason
Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Running backs
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Receivers and tight ends
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Offensive line
Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s unbeaten season yields many wrong preseason predictions
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Defensive line

OUTSIDE READING:
Putting Dexter Williams’ redemptive run in perspective
Irish LB commit Jack Kiser wins IndyStar Mr. Football
Mike Sanford to be Utah State offensive coordinator
College football’s 50 best players for 2018 season
Stewart Mandel’s college football bowl confidence picks
Bruce Feldman’s college football bowl confidence picks
Sports Illustrated’s college football bowl confidence picks
RotoWorld’s Mark Lindquist college football bowl confidence picks
USA Today bowl picks
Why are there so many bowl games? (video)

Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart, a touch lighter with D.J. Morgan’s intended transfer

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With the Wednesday announcement of current junior linebacker D.J. Morgan’s intention to transfer this summer as a graduate with two years of eligibility remaining, Notre Dame’s roster drops to 87 scholarship players expected this coming fall. Included among them, at least 12, possibly 14 linebackers. Before explaining that …

Morgan finishes his Irish career with two tackles in two 2017 appearances as a safety. He moved to linebacker during 2018’s spring practices, but never came particularly close to playing time. It remained difficult to see him cracking into the rotation moving forward given the quality of recruiting classes at the position in the last two cycles.

“I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame for everything they have done for me,” Morgan wrote on Twitter. “When I decided to come here, my main goal was to get my degree from this prestigious University, and I am proud to see that I will be completing that goal this summer!

“During this time I will be searching for a new school to attend as a graduate transfer to finish off my last 2 years of eligibility.”

(@deundraymorgan)

Before facing Louisville on Labor Day, the Irish will need to be down to 85 scholarship players. At 87 now, that does not include incoming freshman J.D. Bertrand, who had a recruitment handled in a deliberate fashion so as to make him eligible for an academic scholarship. Notre Dame also continues to chase two defenders — consensus four-star linebacker Asa Turner and consensus four-star defensive end Isaiah Foskey — who could balloon the roster count further.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason

Keep that necessary attrition in mind as realizing how many players are at certain positions.

DEFENSIVE END (9)
Julian Okwara — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Khalid Kareem — Senior — 1
Daelin Hayes — Senior — 1
Ade Ogundeji — Senior — 2
Justin Ademilola — Sophomore — 4
Jamir Jones — Senior — 1
Kofi Wardlow — Junior — 3
NaNa Osafo-Mensah — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Howard Cross — Incoming freshman — 4

If not for Ademilola’s impressive 2018, it would be easy to presume a four-man rotation next season, but appearing in the Cotton Bowl all-but guarantees Ademilola will be in the mix.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE (6)
Kurt Hinish — Junior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3
Jayson Ademilola — Sophomore — 3
Ja’Mion Franklin — Sophomore — 4
Jacob Lacey — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
Hunter Spears — Early-enrolled freshman — 4

Lacey will need to be ready for at least four games next season, especially with three of these six returning from injury: Tagovailoa-Amosa with a broken foot, though he did at least take some snaps against Clemson; Franklin from a torn quad that will limit him through the spring; and Spears from a torn ACL that could conceivably cost him 2019.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
Asmar Bilal — Fifth-year in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Jordan Genmark-Heath — Junior — 2
Jonathan Jones — Senior — 2
Bo Bauer — Sophomore — 3
Jack Lamb — Sophomore — 4
Drew White — Junior — 3
Jack Kiser — Early-enrolled freshman — 4
J.D. Bertrand — Incoming freshman — 4

It was always going to be a long-shot for Morgan as soon as Bauer and Lamb arrived.

ROVER (5)
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — Junior in 2019-2020 — 3 years of eligibility remaining.
Shayne Simon — Sophomore — 3
Ovie Oghoufo — Sophomore — 3
Marist Liufau — Incoming freshman — 4
Osito Ekwonu — Incoming freshman — 4

Owusu-Koramoah lost 2018 to injury, making this something of a toss-up between him and Simon for a spring competition chasing the starting role, presuming Bilal does indeed move inside as expected.

Alohi Gilman’s 18 tackles in the Cotton Bowl loss should set him up for an offseason of further development and possible captaincy. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

SAFETIES (8)
Alohi Gilman — Senior in 2019-2020 — 2 years of eligibility remaining.
Jalen Elliott — Senior — 1
Devin Studstill — Senior — 1
Houston Griffith — Sophomore — 3
Derrik Allen — Sophomore — 4
Paul Moala — Sophomore — 3
Kyle Hamilton — Incoming freshman — 4
Litchfield Ajavon — Incoming freshman — 4

CORNERBACKS (8)
Troy Pride — Senior in 2019-2020 — 1 year of eligibility remaining.
Donte Vaughn — Senior — 1
TaRiq Bracy — Sophomore — 3
Shaun Crawford — Fifth-year — 1, with possibly another after that if the NCAA grants a medical waiver.
D.J. Brown — Sophomore — 4
Noah Boykin — Sophomore — 4
Isaiah Rutherford — Incoming freshman — 4
K.J. Wallace — Incoming freshman — 4

Someone needs to be Notre Dame’s second cornerback, be that Vaughn, Bracy or a healthy Crawford. Someone also needs to be the Irish nickel back, perhaps Bracy, Crawford or a converted safety.

The questions at cornerback have multiple talented answers, if unproven or uncertain. They should prove to be the most pivotal to Notre Dame’s 2019 success or failure.

 

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.